HIGHER EDUCATION

Though the Nevada System of Higher Education (NSHE) entered the legislative session on the budget chopping block, it ended the session with the most severe cuts blunted by massive tranches of one-time federal aid.

Lawmakers had initially approved closing the higher education system’s budget with a $169 million cut across the system, but budget committees later moved to backfill coffers by adding back more than $93 million in federal COVID relief dollars to help lift a system-wide hiring freeze included by the pandemic — a move estimated to restore funding for 487 full time system positions.

The higher education system is still facing a roughly $75.7 million combined cut over the coming biennium, largely to operational budgets, but additional federal aid money and recovering non-state revenues could further mitigate the lost money.

Beyond the budget, lawmakers advanced several policy bills affecting higher education — most notably SB287, a bill that would designate UNLV and the Desert Research Institute as land grant institutions in addition to UNR. 

Supporters hailed it as a way to bring more federal grant money to researchers at UNLV and DRI, but opponents worried that the bill will reduce UNR’s Cooperative Extension funding, which relies in large part on a mix of federal and county-based money.

The measure passed unanimously out of the Senate and on a 31-11 vote in the Assembly. As amended, the bill did not change the budget structure of the Extension, and UNLV and DRI are now formally codified as land grant institutions under the broad umbrella of the “University of Nevada.”

Republican lawmakers introduced SB321, a proposal to create a Nevada System of Community Colleges, enacting an idea similar to one Gov. Steve Sisolak mentioned in his State of the State speech to create a separate governance structure for community colleges, but it died without receiving a committee hearing. 

It was ultimately another bill introduced by the governor’s office, AB450, that passed out of the Legislature and authorized a study of the state’s community colleges, including their governance, to “align the need for workforce training” to “meet the needs of the evolving economy.”

Lawmakers also combined two similar bills related to Title IX provisions on sexual misconduct investigations on campus into SB347, which passed 18-3 in the Senate and 28-14 in the Assembly. Among other things, the law would authorize the Board of Regents to create a sexual misconduct task force and commission a system-wide climate survey on the issue. 

In a last minute move, lawmakers also revived a bill sponsored by Assemblyman Edgar Flores (D-Las Vegas) by attaching it as an amendment to SB347. The amendment removes de facto citizenship requirements for higher education scholarship programs, and secures access to in-state tuition for any graduate of a Nevada high school regardless of citizenship status.

Even though Nevada voters narrowly rejected Question 1 on the 2020 ballot, a similar concept removing the Board of Regents from the state Constitution was revived and passed out of the 2021 session in the form of SJR7. Proponents argued in part that voters did not fully understand the measure as originally written, and that the slim margin in 2020 warranted a second attempt.